A Friar's suicide, a lawyer who pressed on and the truth about Pa.'s Catholic Church sex abuse | Maria Panaritis – Philly.com

Stephen Baker plunged a knife into his heart at an Altoona-area monastery five years before Pennsylvania’s attorney general, inspired by the friar’s serial abuse of boys across four states, did the same to the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.

Baker had been a serial abuser of boys across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota. He committed suicide in 2013, days after his secrets were made public. The revelation served as a catalyst for the state investigation that dropped with explosive force onto the church a few days ago.

We should thank a Boston lawyer for having let the world — and criminal investigators — know about Baker’s past.

How the investigation began is, in itself, a testament to the power of civil law when others are doing their best to keep criminality secret.

State authorities convened two grand juries over four years of seven of the state’s Roman Catholic dioceses to uncover the litany of clergy abuse in the church statewide that had been concealed for decades.

The first grand jury report came in 2016 and was about the Altoona-Johnstown diocese. That probe included criminal charges against the Franciscan men who had supervised Baker. Then came the second grand jury and its nearly 900-page condemnation of the church, its priests, and top leaders in the dioceses of Allentown, Scranton, Harrisburg, Greensburg, Erie and Pittsburgh, a breathtaking document  made public this past Tuesday.


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MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro stood with victims of clergy abuse while unveiling a nearly 900-page grand jury report on Tuesday.


The work led by state prosecutors amounts to the most comprehensive probe into clergy abuse by U.S. law enforcement to date.

A close review of the two grand jury reports and news clippings show that Mitchell Garabedian, the Massachusetts clergy abuse lawyer whose heroics during the 2002 Boston scandal were made famous by the movie Spotlight, was the person who helped investigators learn about Baker.


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ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

St. Bernadine Monastery in Hollidaysburg, Pa., is where Franciscan Friar Stephen Baker killed himself as his abuse of children across multiple states became public in 2013.


As I laid all this out for him in a phone call Thursday, Garabedian was surprised to hear of his unwitting role. (The man has handled so many clergy abuse cases, it’s a wonder his brain has not been fried. I forgive him for not realizing his consequential role here.)

In January 2013, Garabedian confirmed to the press that he had just settled a civil case with the Diocese of Youngstown and with the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, headquartered in Hollidaysburg, Pa. He had represented nearly a dozen child victims at a Catholic high school in Warren, Ohio, where Baker had worked during the 1980s.


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ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

Attorney General Kathleen Kane in March 2016 announced criminal conspiracy charges against three leaders of the Altoona-area Franciscan Order who enabled Friar Stephen Baker to abuse scores of boys. This was part one of the probe that culminated a few days ago with a report about criminality at six more of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses.

The Associated Press filed a story. The account crossed into Pennsylvania and instantly terrified people who knew that Baker had served for years as an athletic trainer at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, Pa., after his assignment in Ohio.

The friar killed himself  days after the news broke.

As the headlines made their way to Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan, herself a product of Catholic schools, the Johnstown law enforcement chief could not — did not — look away. She launched a probe into Baker’s time at Bishop McCort High School there in the 1990s.

This made Callihan a hero, too, because we now know from the grand jury’s exhaustive review of testimony and church records from all seven dioceses that men in law enforcement positions across the state had been corrupted by the church’s influence and opted for concealment over prosecution, too.


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ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

This is the Hollidaysburg, Pa., monastery where Friar Stephen Baker killed himself.


“When he died I had to make a decision whether the investigation had to continue on,” Callihan told me two years ago, when I interviewed her about the Baker case in the wake of the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury report’s release. “We knew we could not investigate or hold him accountable because he was dead. But what I learned in that short amount of time was that I had information that it went deeper than just his acts.”

By the end of 2013, Callihan had handed over her investigation to the attorney general’s office, fearing it was much bigger than her small staff in central Pennsylvania could handle.

By early 2014, then-Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office had impaneled a grand jury and assigned a team of attorneys general and agents to pursue what would become, by 2016, a full examination of concealment within the Altoona-Johnstown diocese and among leaders of  Baker’s Franciscan order.

Kane’s office revealed those findings in March 2016 and filed child endangerment charges against several Franciscan superiors, two of whom were convicted a few months ago.


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ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

Robert M. Hoatson, a former priest, on the University of Pittsburgh campus in Johnstown, Pa., as the state attorney general announced criminal conspiracy charges against three leaders of a Franciscan Order in March 2016.

Flooded with calls from new victims, the office impaneled a second grand jury to expand the probe to include six other dioceses. (The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was excluded because local prosecutors there already had found decades of horrors through two grand jury probes revealing rampant abuse and concealment there, too.)

Investigators dropped subpoenas on diocesan offices across the state before Josh Shapiro, Kane’s elected successor, took over in January 2017. Shapiro oversaw the fight against intense efforts by the church to stop release of the report.

Garabedian told me he refuses to play the church’s civil-litigation hardball: take the money and run, but only if you and your victim clients keep your mouths shut afterward. He does not accept confidentiality seals on settlements.

“I represented at least 85 victims in Baker, combining Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania,” he said. “And a new Baker victim has recently come forward.”

Justice shouldn’t be the job of private lawyers alone. But let’s hope that guys like Garabedian keep watch. Because our children need them.

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